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Today’s Muslim Americans are yesterday’s German Americans

We’re not “better” than Trump’s anti-Muslim xenophobia. We’re old pros.
  • Jake Flanagin
By Jake Flanagin


Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

“There is no place here for the hyphenated American, and the sooner he returns to the country of his allegiance the better.”

Who spoke these words? It was not, in fact, present-day Donald Trump, bloviating about his plans to mass deport Mexican Americans, or register Muslim Americans in a national database; nor the equally xenophobic, albeit softer-spoken Ben Carson. No—these were the verbalized convictions of one former US president Theodore Roosevelt, speaking at a Columbus Day celebration at Carnegie Hall in New York City, as reported by The New York Times in 1915 (pdf).

“A hyphenated American is not an American at all,” Roosevelt told a rapt crowd of 2,500. “The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of it continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities.”

“A hyphenated American is not an American at all.” – Theodore Roosevelt

“For an American citizen to vote as a German-American, an Irish-American, or an English-American is to be a traitor to American institutions,” he added, “And those hyphenated Americans who terrorize American politicians by threats of the foreign vote are engaged in treason to the American Republic.” The crowd, spiritual predecessors of what one might find at a 2015 rally for Mr. Trump’s presidential candidacy, met this unapologetic pronouncement of chauvinism with enthusiastic cheers.

That evening at Carnegie Hall, Roosevelt was referring to the lobbying of some German and Irish Americans against US involvement in the First World War. Though a substantial number indeed advocated for neutrality—due to a combination of pro-German and anti-British feelings—this hardly qualifies as treason, or even anti-Americanism. (For it was no certainty that the United States would enter the war until several years into the conflict; and many non-Germans and non-Irish opposed intervention, including socialists and Christian pacifists.)

Many of these so-called hyphenated Americans were first- or second-generation citizens, or naturalized immigrants themselves. They, or their parents, or their parents’ parents had made conscious decisions to depart ethnic homelands for ostensibly better lives in the United States. They were presumably just as devoted to the national project as Roosevelt, Wilson, and the more established Anglo-Dutch communities.

Really, is not citizenship by choice a more powerful nationalistic statement than citizenship by accident of birth?

“Any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger.” – Woodrow Wilson

Suspicion of hyphenated Americans carried on well after the US entered the war. In his final address to the League of Nations in Sep. 1919 (pdf), US president Woodrow Wilson declared, “Any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic.” But paranoia regarding “hyphenism,” as it were, was not actually borne out of any real desire to divorce American identity from ethno-nationalism, as Roosevelt attempted to convince his audience in New York. The emergence of “Americanism,” or, less euphemistically, “Anglo-Americanism,” was an outgrowth of the Great Rapprochement—the warming of relations between the United States and its colonial parent, the United Kingdom, at the turn of the 20th century.

This transition, historians say, shellacked American culture with a thick coat of Anglophilia, bringing about a blossoming of Anglo-Saxonism in and the implicit promotion of English heritage as the core of national identity. Anything that did not conform to the Anglo-Saxon ideal of Americanism was considered an insidious encroachment on the national narrative, vaguely seditious, if not openly bellicose.

For German Americans in 1915, these sentiments were only exacerbated by the fact that the United States was teetering on the precipice of war with two major Germanic powers: the German and Austro-Hungarian empires. German-speakers were the global bad guys du jour, and as war hysteria tightened its grip on the American populace, those Americans of German extraction were increasingly seen as would-be spies, saboteurs, or terrorists; their Americanism entirely undone by a bit of punctuation.

The Department of Justice compiled a list of Germans residing in the United States. The Red Cross barred citizens with German last names from joining up. A German-American coalminer in Collinsville, Illinois, was killed by a mob of 300. Towns and cities across America outlawed (or attempted to outlaw) the use of German in public.

Sound familiar?

Once again, America finds itself locked in conflict with a cultural other—the Islamic State, and what remains of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. These organizations, not unlike the early 20th-century German Reich and Habsburg dominions, have eclipsed broader identities, swallowing up and redefining the nature of billions of Muslims in American eyes. We are returning to ridiculous, utterly baseless conspiracy-theories about Muslim Americans in New Jersey celebrating the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11. We have serious presidential candidates advocating for a national database of practicing Muslims, and anti-Muslim religious tests for immigration and holding office. Muslim Americans have been assaulted for speaking Arabic or Swahili in public. Politicians have unapologetically likened members of the community to “rabid dogs.

It seems we have learned precious little from over a century of history repeating itself.

It seems we have learned precious little from over a century of history repeating itself.

Our habit of denying certain citizens the second-half of their hyphenated identity, their Americanism, is one that has reared its head time and time again—almost always in periods of war or ideological conflict. German Americans once more found themselves the target of their neighbors’ jingoistic paranoia during the Second World War; though were not victimized nearly to the same extent as Japanese Americans—who were quite literally rounded up and interned for the crime of sharing a bit of DNA with the enemy.

Historically speaking, anti-Irish and anti-Italian sentiments were rooted in anti-papism—a fear that Catholics prioritized allegiance to the Holy See above the stars and stripes. Catholicism, in colonial America through decades as recent as the 1960s, was treated not unlike Islam today—as “inconsistent” with constitutional ideals, innately foreign, mysterious, even primitive.

We know now that these assessments of hyphenated Americans—German, Irish, Catholic, etc.—were hysterical and maliciously bigoted, inspired by a noxious combination of fear and stupidity. Today, German Americans constitute the largest ethnic demographic in the United States, followed shortly by the Irish; both of which have inarguably had positive impacts on American society that far outweigh any imaginary risk posed in wartime. Some of our most fondly-remembered leaders, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, for example (elected only a few, short decades after the First World War) have counted themselves among them.

Though they could more easily hide their (self-assigned) identities, American leftists experienced similar alienation during the Cold War. Accused of colluding with the Reds, they were forcibly stripped of their patriotism, propagandized as cancers nibbling away at Americanism from within.

Surely the point of repeating history is to notice the repetition, identify the avoidable faults, and make an active effort to discontinue them. We are constantly fed the message that, as a nation of immigrants, we’re “better” than what recent manifestations of xenophobia would suggest. If history is any indication, we’re clearly not better than the attitudes demonstrated by Trump and company. But we can be. We can be a true “nation of immigrants”—one that is ruled by compassion, not fear or willful ignorance. Why not start now?

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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